There was a moment, a quiet one, during John Mulaney’s early stand-up show Saturday at the Wilbur Theatre. It wasn’t one of his signature wry jokes, a microphone cord flourish, or a well-meaning jab at Boston — though there were plenty of those in his 90-minute set.
It was when, after sharing the details of his drug addiction, intervention, and rehab stint, all of which transpired within the past nine months, he told the crowd: I’m doing OK.
To which we uproariously applauded.
Mulaney’s sold-out 21-show run at the Wilbur, which broke a venue record, is a reckoning with himself. Much of the show chronicles the 38-year-old comedian’s “star-studded” December intervention — attended by the likes of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Natasha Lyonne — for his addiction to cocaine, Percocet, Adderall, and Xanax.
It is also a reckoning with his fans, with the attention-seeking behaviors that make him a captivating comic but also drove him to hell and — thank goodness — back again. When he walked on the stage to thunderous applause, he mused that he would self-destruct more often if he knew that would be the response.
The show might be called “From Scratch,” but the material isn’t. Mulaney has referenced his addiction problems in previous specials — blacking out from drinking in high school, smoking cocaine the night before his college graduation — but always downplayed it as a youthful phase that had long since passed. Never before have we seen Mulaney with this proximity to the punch line.
But this show isn’t a Hannah Gadsby or Bo Burnham meta unraveling; Mulaney never strays far from his droll deliveries, anchored to his tried-and-true formula of making the mundane outlandish and vice versa. He regales us with the indignation he felt when nobody recognized him in the Pennsylvania rehab facility where he spent about two months. He pokes fun at fellow comedian Nick Kroll, who had Zoom connectivity issues during his hybrid intervention.
Mulaney’s comedic style has always been observational, noticing the things others don’t, and we love him for it. But now, he’s turning the microscope on himself with the same trademark levity — and we still love him for it. If comedy is tragedy plus time, Mulaney is a bona fide roadrunner.
In May, an essay by Vulture writer Jesse David Fox posed the question “Who should John Mulaney be now?” after Mulaney’s first shows back on the stand-up circuit. After I saw Saturday’s show, that gave way to another query: Why has John Mulaney chosen, night after night, to tap into the “coked-up Tasmanian devil,” as he dubbed himself, that he has worked so hard to exorcise? Is it a function of an Ephron-like philosophy that everything is copy? An exercise in public catharsis? A manifestation of his damning hunch that attention is the same as love?
I choose to believe that Mulaney is broadcasting his demons because this is his best material. He did not get a say in us learning his secrets. But he does get a say in which ones he can spin into razor-sharp jokes, like the one about snorting cocaine off a baby-changing table in a gas station on the ride to rehab, that leave crowds howling.
Mulaney has always been vulnerable, but not like this. Now that we know that his aw-shucks persona has been a farce, he is free to shed it. During the show, he conversed with a woman seated in the balcony who had also been to rehab for drug addiction. He spent two minutes opining in real time about why a joke he had just told about Bill Hader flopped. He implored us to buy his T-shirt merch (one of which is emblazoned with “I saw him right after he got outta rehab” across the front), attributing it to unelaborated “financial problems.”
This shift, however, means he must occasionally become the antagonist in his stand-up, a realm where he used to feature himself exclusively as a perceptive spectator. After recounting his intervention from the perspective of the clever centerpiece, he notes that if he were to tell the real story, the one where his friends saved his life, it would make for a boring comedy routine. He oscillates between punching up and down on himself. Sometimes, he doesn’t know which is which, and neither do we.
Perhaps the most hopeful (and bravest) signal Mulaney gives us is not what he says on stage, but the fact that he has returned to it not even a year after his public downfall. Like all of us, he is blistered, but grateful to be here — not quite from scratch, but a work in progress worth applauding.
Dana Gerber can be reached at email@example.com